ANCIENT KYTHERA & THE SOUTH EAST
OF THE ISL AND
Most of the ancient sites on Kythera lie along or near to the southeastern coast, a fact which underlines the greater importance and interest of Crete, rather than of the Peloponnesian mainland, in the island’s earliest history. In good weather conditions, Crete is visible from here and, with the stepping-stone of Antikythera at the half-way point, the sea journey between the islands was not difficult to undertake. The coast offers a couple of relatively sheltered anchorages, and there is a beauty and un-menacing quality in the wide sweep of its bays and the valleys behind, which must have appealed to early settlers.
At the eastern extremity of the island, a conical hill (356m) rises solitarily, offering splendid views towards the mainland, to Crete, and into the rising sun. Today the hill is crowned by the two whitewashed churches of the Panaghia Myrtiotissa and of *Aghios Giorgios sto Vouno; but on this commanding site in the 2nd millennium bc there was a Minoan mountain-top sanctuary. (Access by 3km of unpaved road, leading southeast from the asphalt road at the summit above Diakofti. Keys for the churches with the pappas (priest) of Palaiopolis.) The space at the top of the hill has a natural east-west orientation: its Minoan site was uncovered in 1992 right in front of the churches and stretching a few metres to the south onto the slope overlooking Avlemonas. The numerous finds indicated that the site was an important sanctuary, used continuously from the Minoan Bronze Age to Classical and Byzantine times. A considerable quantity of small Minoan votive idols with raised hands, made of bronze or clay, were discovered—notably more in bronze than in clay. These are now in the Archaeological Museum of Piraeus. This was the first such sanctuary to be found outside Crete, and the new light that it sheds on early Minoan trade and colonisation makes the work which was done here a very significant piece of archaeology. The dig has been covered over once again, and there is little of it to see now, but the church of Aghios Giorgios (the more easterly of the two), which contains some rare and curious *mosaics in its floor, provides great interest.
The mosaics are not extensive, but they are clearly visible— particularly when wet with water. They are executed in four colours of stone: one scene is of a huntsman in an oriental hat and elaborate red jacket, with a leopard and other animals and birds which are close to him but not clearly related in any narrative way; on the south side is a small roundel shaped fragment with a booted and dressed figure, with a partridge and some different coloured flowers that have the appearance of bunches of grapes, beside him. The mosaic, behind the templon screen, picturing a dove enclosed within an abstract meander design, has a different style—much simpler and executed in only three colours, with a lower density of tesserae per area. The apsidal shape of its lay-out would suggest that it was contemporary with the construction of a church here, though not necessarily the one standing today; it may also be of a different (possibly later) date from the other mosaics. Both the costume and style of the hunting mosaics have suggested a generally accepted date of the 7th century ad; but an earlier date (even late 5th century) cannot be excluded. The mosaics raise many interesting problems: not least how to explain why such a remote site should have been so lavishly and unusually decorated in a period in which Kythera was a distant and poor outpost of civilisation. The subject matter is also perplexing: Christian interpretations can be given to its program, but the scene with the hunter seems particularly secular. This may sim ply show how slowly new imagery evolved, and how the old pagan visual motifs were still alive and well, although with a new significance, in the early Christian era. But it is not implausible that the mosaics belonged to a pre-Christian building on this site—possibly even a Late-Roman patrician villa—which is yet to be fully explored.
The existing 13th century church has a stone and plaster templon screen bearing the date 1882. The murals on the north and south walls are also 19th century, though breaches in the plaster reveal earlier layers beneath.
The adjacent church of the Panaghia Myrtiotissa (to the west) is in effect two churches: a square church of the Panaghia, surmounted by a shallow cupola of concentrically corbelled, rough-cut stone; and the later addition of the church of Aghios Nikolaos to its west side. Although the Panaghia is the oldest construction extant on the hill top, and is of the 10th century or earlier, all the churches here are probably built over the foundations of earlier ones, which in turn cover the pagan structures beneath. As if to bring the whole ensemble into modernity, the double church of Aghios Nikolaos/Panaghia Myrtiotissa has, in its otherwise bare interior, a pleasingly naif-style iconostasis, dated 4 December (St Nicholas’s day) 1908.
The two islands just off-shore, visible from the peak of Vouno, are Dragonara (south) and Antidragonara (north). Archaeological finds on the latter are providing evidence that it was the home of an important sanctuary to Poseidon ‘Gaieochos’ (γαιήοχος ‘earth-upholding’). A quantity of votive vases and coins with provenance from all corners of the Mediterranean and Black Sea regions show that this minuscule islet was a focus of considerable cultic significance in later Hellenistic times. Due north of the peak of Vouno, another tiny island, Makrikythera, has been joined to the main island by a bridge to form the new port of Diakofti. (The beached hulk of a Polish vessel, which ran aground in 1999 on the rocks of Prassonissi just outside the port, after an evening of revelry in the mess, provides an encouraging welcome to the harbour.) Near Diakofti is the cave known as *‘Chousti’, a fascinating natural pothole with an underground sanctuary, which is currently in the process of being excavated and studied. (200m inland of the bridge at Diakofti, a small road leads off to the east; after 150m it ends and becomes a track. Following the track up onto a slight rise, the unobtrusive entrance down into the cave is at a point about 50m north of two stone, barrel-vaulted churches.) Steps, carved in the rock, lead down into the cave which has a spacious round form, like a cupola, illuminated by a roughly circular breach at its apex. The form suggests the dome of the heavens with a solar oculus in its centre. The floor of the cave has vestiges of simple masonry, now collapsed and partly buried. Excavations are beginning to uncover layers which show that the cave has been a place first of refuge and later of cult, from Neolithic times through to the Geometric and Classical eras. One of the most curious finds to come from the cave is part of a clay tablet incised with lists of syllables, used probably for the teaching or practising of writing by a student. The foundations of an ancient building are visible outside the cave, just to the west of its entrance but standing more or less over the chamber below. The building, or temple, was rectangular, approximately 12 x 8m, and oriented perfectly to the cardinal points.
The peak above Diakofti is crowned by the imposing monastery of Aghia Moni, built in 1840: the ornate bell-tower, which dominates the spacious courtyard, is in carved poros stone stone. (8.5km inland from the bridge at Diakofti, turn uphill 3km to monastery.) The catholicon has a fine façade, which contrasts with the plain front the monastery presents to the road as you arrive. In 1806, Theodore Kolokotronis took refuge in the dilapidated monastery on this same site when he came to Kythera fleeing from the Turkish authorities; he prayed for safety and promised to rebuild the monastery should he live to see Greece liberated. The bust and monument to him at the junction of the road leading to the monastery, celebrates his fulfilment of that promise.
Returning to a point on the main airport–Daikofti road, 4.3km inland from the bridge at Diakofti, a concrete road leads downhill towards the coast and to Palaiopolis. The valley you descend into is a limestone honeycomb of caves, holes and shallow gorges. There are also many ancient limestone quarries: these are mostly superficial, but are clearly visible today from the road, imparting a strangely ‘cubist’ form to the landscape in places. One large area of quarrying is visible to the landward side of the coast-road just before it enters Avlemonas. Avlemonas has grown up around a tiny natural cove which was once a principal port of the island. It was just out to sea from here that Lord Elgin’s ship, Mentor, carrying a consignment of the Parthenon sculptures en route for London, sank and had to be raised from the sea-bed in 1803. There is a fine octagonal 16th century Venetian fortress on the promontory which guards the entrance to the port. The picturesque harbour is dominated by the 18th century Cavallini mansion, with an elaborate sun dial over its entrance: this building served as the Austro Hungarian consulate in the early 19th century. The fact that the clear waters of these bays are sometimes referred to as Loutra Aphroditis, or ‘Baths of Aphrodite’, is witness to the persistent tradition that the goddess’s remarkable birth happened nearby.
Aphrodite, the goddess of love and the protectress of sexual union and reproduction, is often given the epithet ‘Kythereia’, and the island, in turn, is sometimes referred to as ‘the Island of Aphrodite’; the two— goddess and island—are closely associated. In con tradistinction to Homer’s account of the goddess as daughter of Zeus and Dione, Hesiod’s Theogeny (ll. 188–206) describes how she was born from the foam that splashed up where the severed genitals of her father, Uranus, fell to the sea—namely, off Kythera. From this (appropriately) messy beginning, Hesiod goes on to describe how she was wafted by waves to Cyprus where she came ashore and was venerated as the protecting divinity of the island. This improbable story may be seen as the Ancient Greeks’ way of ap propriating and Hellenising a divinity whose origins lay undoubtedly in the East and whose cult may have been brought by Phoenician traders and settlers via Cyprus to Kythera. Herodotus says (Bk. I, 105) that he had reason to believe that the temple of Aphrodite at Ascalon (modern Asqelon in Israel) was the most ancient of all her temples anywhere, and that ‘‘¦the one in Cyprus, the Cypriots themselves admit was derived from it, and the one in Kythera was built by the Phoenicians, who hail from this part of Syria’.
The cult of Aphrodite is as complex as love itself and many different aspects of the goddess were ven erated in different places: she was known as ‘Pandemos’ in Athens, protecting the continuity and fertility of the whole community; as ‘Euploia’ in the Aegean ports, protecting mariners on the sea from which she herself was born; as the dark ‘Melainis’, the patroness of carnal love and prostitution, and the powers of the night, in Corinth; and, here in Kythera, as ‘Aphrodite Ourania’ or ‘heavenly’, presiding over every Kind of union—especially those of a higher nature. Sanctuaries to Aphrodite in particular attracted the destructive attentions of early-Christian zealots, and it is not surprising therefore that very little remains of her temple here on Kythera. But her presence in, and association with, the island has been given momentum in the Western imagination by the fame of Watteau’s whimsical painting, L’Embarquement pour l’Isle de Cythere, painted in 1712/3—a work which was crucial in bringing his extraordinary talent to the attention of a wider public. It created an indelible picture of an imaginary Kythera for generations of Europeans who, like Watteau, had never been to the island.
Herodotus’s words, quoted above, could suggest that Avlemonas might be, in origin, a Phoenician settlement— perhaps the site of the ancient port which bore the name of ‘Finikounda’. But evidence of a Phoenician presence has always been characteristically elusive, and may simply derive from the fact that Kythera was famous in classical antiquity for the production of purple dye from the murex shell—an industry and trade that was particularly associated with the Phoenicians.
Kythera Island, Greece